Lessons from the Names of Pesach
“The entire Congregation of the assembly of Israel shall slaughter it in the afternoon” (Shemot 12:6)
Chazal tell us (Tur, Orach Chaim 430) that the Shabbat preceding Pesach is called Shabbat Hagadol because of the great miracle that occurred then. Bnei Yisrael were commanded on that day to take one sheep for each family and tie it to the bedpost, in preparation to slaughter it on the 14th of Nisan. When the Egyptians observed how the Jews disgraced their deity, slaughtering it and eating its flesh, they were full of fury and wanted to completely destroy them. Hashem performed miracles on behalf of His people, and they remained unharmed.
An incident that occurred in Arab countries in the year 5771 illustrates the tumult that must have erupted due to the slaughtering of the sheep. A Christian leader wished to mock Islam. He publicly burned the Koran. The entire Muslim world was up in arms. Pandemonium and protests broke out, loudly decrying this act.
Bnei Yisrael took the sheep, the sanctified idols of the Egyptians, and publicly slaughtered and consumed them. These were the very same Jews who had recently been wretched slaves, submissive to their Egyptian taskmasters. Here they came and scorned the sheep, deity of the ruling race. The name Shabbat Hagadol attests to the great miracles performed on behalf of Bnei Yisrael, protecting them from the wrath of the gentiles.
However, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to call the Shabbat preceding Yom Kippur Shabbat Hagadol? This is the day when everyone rouses himself spiritually, and his heart is filled with yirat Shamayim. On this Shabbat each person surely examines his deeds and seeks ways to improve himself. He does complete teshuvah, in order to prepare himself fittingly for the great day of Yom Kippur. One does not usually attain this purity of soul on other Shabbatot of the year. Why, then, is this Shabbat not called Shabbat Hagadol?
The Torah is very stringent concerning the prohibition of chametz on Pesach. One is enjoined to check every crack and crevice, nullifying any and all forms of chametz. But our Chachamim do not suffice with the mitzvah of the Torah. They commanded that we burn any remnants of chametz in our possession, fearing lest one may come across a tasty-looking piece of chametz on Pesach and eat it (see Pesachim 6b). This would seem sensible regarding large amounts of chametz. But why are we required to search out and burn even a crumb long-forgotten in some far corner? Do we really suspect that someone would want to eat it?
In order to address these questions, let us first study the names of this holiday. The names given for Pesach, in their correct order, can serve as trailblazers to pave our path in Avodat Hashem.
We begin with Chag Ha’aviv – The Spring Festival. The spring is when all the foliage becomes renewed. The trees turn green and the flowers blossom. The entire world becomes rejuvenated. A person, at times, wishes to turn over a new leaf. He wants to open a fresh page in his spiritual life, improving himself and walking the road of righteousness. How is this done? By means of Chag Hamatzot – The Festival of Matzot. The word תוצמ (matzot) is similar to the word תווצמ (mitzvot). On the pasuk (Shemot 12:17), “You shall safeguard the matzot,” Chazal say (Mechilta) in the name of Rabbi Yoshiah, “Do not read matzot, but mitzvot. Do not a let mitzvah that comes your way go sour.” The first step in the journey to the House of Hashem is to first and foremost attach oneself to Torah and mitzvot.
To reach this strong connection, one must take the lesson from the name Chag HaPesach – The Festival of Passover. He must “pass over” all materialism. If a person is constantly attracted to the pleasures of this world, he will never manage to acquire Torah and perform mitzvot properly. One who is enslaved to the pleasures of his body and is not prepared to forego them, constantly chasing fleeting frivolities, will never be capable of harnessing himself with the reins of Torah and mitzvot. He will not agree to submit himself to the yoke of the King of the world. But if he is wise enough to distance himself from earthly pleasures, “passing over” physical pursuits, and overcoming the nisyonot strewn on his path, his way will be paved before him, connecting him with the Creator. He has become liberated of the shackles of the Yetzer Hara, freed from the frivolities of this world. He will thereby become attached to Torah and mitzvot. The pasuk states (ibid. 12:27), “It is a Pesach feast-offering to Hashem.” By passing over the enticements of the Yetzer Hara, he will merit becoming sanctified to Hashem.
This is the essence of Pesach. A person frees himself from the bondage of his Yetzer Hara, distancing himself from him as much as possible. For if he were to allow him even a small foothold in his territory, the Yetzer will end up becoming his master, chalilah. Chazal tell us (Bereishit Rabbah 22), “At first, the Yetzer Hara is weak like a female. Afterward, he gains strength like a male. At first, he is like a guest. But afterward, he becomes the landlord.”
Now we might understand why the Torah is so scrupulous regarding even a small crumb of chametz on Pesach. Chametz symbolizes the Yetzer Hara, which must be eradicated at all costs. If even a tiny smidgen of the Yetzer Hara resides within a person’s heart, it will eventually overtake him completely. Chazal tell us (Sukkah 52a) that the Yetzer Hara begins as a thin spider’s web and eventually becomes as thick as wagon ropes. The Yetzer Hara never rests on his laurels, always attempting to rope us in as his slaves. It is therefore every person’s obligation to thoroughly examine his “cracks and crevices” for any trace of impurity and eradicate it completely. Any suggestion of sin should be burned, and any negative character trait purged from within him. For although the Yetzer Hara starts off small, we cannot fathom the proportions he can acquire.
The Shabbat preceding Pesach is auspicious for the name Shabbat Hagadol. It is then that a person perceives the proper path he should take to ensure his walking safely in his Avodat Hashem. For if he merited a spiritual awakening and wishes to start a new chapter in his spiritual story, the equivalent of Chag Ha’aviv, when all of nature is renewed, he must connect himself closely with Chag Hamatzot, representing the mitzvot, which he will attain in the merit of Chag HaPesach, “passing over” the passing pursuits of physicality. He will do this with love and joy, all the while maintaining his distance from chametz, the embodiment of the Yetzer Hara. This will enable him to acquire the tools to facilitate his spiritual ascent throughout the rest of the year. The glow of Pesach already begins on Shabbat Hagadol, illuminating one’s way on the path of kedushah, liberated from the tentacles of the Yetzer Hara.
Furthermore, these days provide preparation for the long-awaited day, the day of Matan Torah on Shavuot. No pain, no gain, as the saying goes. One who truly wishes to wear the victor’s crown of Torah is required to do battle with the Yetzer Hara. Tireless effort is needed in order to reach great heights.
A man once met me and began pouring out all his woes. He had no place to live; he had no means of support; and was generally in a bad state. He turned to me pleadingly, asking how he could improve his lot.
I told him that I thought he suffered from the trait of laziness. As long as he would sit idly, he would not accomplish a thing. I suggested that he rise with alacrity every morning and go out to work, living from the fruit of his labor. This would bring him fulfillment, and bisiyata di’Shemaya, his condition would improve. Man is born to work. Without toil, there are no gains.
In contrast, I met a man from Syria who immigrated to Venezuela. He had started off as a wretched pauper, who had suffered many failures. But he never gave up. He decided he would take whatever work came his way, in order to provide himself a livelihood. Every day, he would pass by the place where the factories would dispose of their leftover fabrics. He collected pieces of fabric that still looked good. He would bring them home, and he and his sons would fashion these fabrics into men’s ties. They would sell these ties for a profit. Slowly but surely, his condition improved. He upgraded the quality of his ties and eventually opened a store. Hashem helped him tremendously, and he ultimately became one of the wealthiest men in the country.
These tales show us that a little self-motivation goes a long way. If this applies in materialistic matters, how much more so in spiritual ones. How much must man exert himself in order to merit acquiring Torah! The great people of our nation merited acquiring their status through exhausting efforts to sanctify their souls and purify their minds. They agreed to forego worldly pleasures. They fought a mighty battle with their Yetzer Hara and therefore merited reaching the summit of the mountain of Torah and yirat Shamayim.
Even in my own life, I see the truth of this. Through the merit of my holy ancestors, I have been able to establish Torah institutions throughout the world. But only with much sweat and toil. Throughout the year, I sacrifice myself to bring the word of Hashem to every Jew, no matter where. In order to increase the glory of Torah throughout the world, I am constantly travelling. This saps my energy and precludes normal sleeping patterns. For a large part of the year, I hardly get to spend time with my wife or my children, may they live and be well. Yet I am driven by the mission to spread Torah all through the world and broaden the borders of kedushah. This is very likely my tikkun, the reason why I came into the world.
The very generous donations which we manage to distribute to the needy also do not come easily. This year (5771), once again with Hashem’s chessed, we succeeded in arranging a kimcha d’Pischa distribution. Thousands of families in various locations, both in Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora, were assisted in this way. Wherever we heard there was a need, in France, Argentina, and many other countries, we tried to meet it however possible.
Do not entertain the thought that the funds for these drives come effortlessly. I must meet with various philanthropists, scattered throughout the world. It is my job to convince them to contribute toward our cause. I teach them the virtues of charity. Baruch Hashem, my efforts pay off, and I see success in my labors.
I am not, chalilah, relating all this in order to publicize my good deeds. It is to teach others that in order to achieve positive results in one’s Avodat Hashem, he must put in effort. He cannot sit still, for only through planting with tears will one reap with joy. During these exalted days, days of preparation for Kabbalat HaTorah, one must exert himself to improve his character and perfect his ways in order to merit wearing the crown of Torah.
I know of many people who put in long hours of work every day. But, unfortunately, when it comes to Torah, they’re a closed book. They have no strength left for toiling in Torah and mitzvot. On the contrary, in spiritual matters, they are lazy, unwilling to expend the necessary energy for Avodat Hashem. Good business deals soak up all their stores of diligence and alacrity, so by the end of the day, they’re finished.
This is obviously not the right way to act. Hashem desires that people put minimal effort into worldly matters, satisfying oneself with little. But in matters of Avodat Hashem, the sky’s the limit. One should constantly aspire to reach greater and greater heights, as much as he is able, in Torah and yirat Shamayim.
On one of my trips to the USA, I met a wealthy man. He came to me for a blessing. I asked him whether he dons tefillin or observes Shabbat.
“I don’t even have time to think of such things,” he answered simply. “From dawn to dusk, I am involved in business.”
I didn’t give up, and pressed on. “Think rationally. In the five minutes it takes you to put on tefillin each morning, you are bonding with your Maker. This is the most profitable deal, earning you a portion in eternity. You should know that all the blessings you enjoy in life come from Hashem. What a shame it is that you don’t try to connect with Him in some way…”
The man heard me out and went on his way. After a long time, he came to me again, this time with his wife. I asked him how he was faring. He told me that his fortunes suddenly took a downward turn, leaving him with hardly anything. But almost in the same breath, he said the following: “I came to thank the Rav, shlita, for after our first meeting, I began putting on tefillin every day. The words of the Rav made an impression on me. After being scrupulous with the mitzvah of tefillin, I began to be scrupulous with other mitzvot, as well. Baruch Hashem, my entire family has become transformed. We have all undergone complete teshuvah, and I have fixed times every day for Torah study. I came to show my gratitude to the Rav, who enlightened my eyes and paved the path of teshuvah before me.”
His wife added, “It is true that we are bereft of all our physical wealth. But we are loaded down with spiritual riches. This is the wealth that brings in its wake true happiness. The way of Torah suffuses us with real joy. With all of our previous wealth, we never reached the level of happiness we have now.”
This is the story as it transpired. Every word transmitted the message that it is worthwhile for a person to invest his main energies in Avodat Hashem, in Torah study and mitzvah observance. Only they will grant him true happiness. A life of Torah does not end with a person’s passing on. It escorts him to the World to Come, granting him tremendous reward. But apart from what awaits him in the Next World, he eats of the fruits of his labor even in this world, as well.
I would like to add the following comment. The man who had been demoted from his wealth did not complain at all about his loss. He had no grievances against Hashem, chas v’shalom. He did not wonder why, after accepting the yoke of Torah upon his shoulders, instead of finding blessing in his fortunes, the opposite took place. After he began to see what a Torah life is all about, he appreciated its sweetness, as the psalmist says in Tehillim (34:9), “Contemplate and see that Hashem is good; praiseworthy is the man who takes refuge in Him.”